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So When Did ‘Ma’am’ Become an Insult?
Our younger daughter, then 19, used to work as a manager in an antique store. As such, she was expected to be polite and respectful with customers. One evening she came home and vented about a customer who turned “volte-face” and nearly bit her head off when our daughter addressed her as “ma’am.” “Don’t call me that!” the woman snarled. “I’m not a ma’am!”
Since our daughter is bred to politeness – and since she represented the store – she couldn’t ask the obvious: “If you’re not a ‘ma’am,” then what ARE you? A jerk?”
I couldn’t believe anyone could be that rude until a similar experience happened to me a few weeks later, when a store clerk took exception to my addressing her as ma’am.
And of course, who can forget Barbara Boxer’s unbelievably rude exchange in 2009 during a committee hearing, when Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the effrontery to address her as “ma’am.” Boxer interrupted and asked him to call her “senator.” Boxer was clearly ignorant of military protocol, in which “ma’am” is universally used to address female superiors. In other words, as a female in the military, you have to earn the right to be called “ma’am.”
More recently, a teacher in North Carolina punished a 10-year-old boy named Tamarion Wilson for calling her “ma’am” after she asked him not to – even though the child had recently been hospitalized with seizures and still suffered from memory issues.
This one blew me away. Wilson’s parents took the time to teach their son respect and manners toward authority figures, and then the boy’s politeness was punished. Additionally, “the teacher said that if she had something to throw, she would have thrown it at the boy,” according to Wilson. (The teacher later said that was a joke.)
What’s up with this? A hugely polite term such as “ma’am” is now considered insulting?
The question of “why” takes a bit of examination. For some women, the term is an acknowledgement that they’re “past their prime.” For others, the term is considered a put-down, an admission of gender, a recognition that they are, in fact, women (horrors!) and not, I dunno, vacuum cleaners or something.
Cosmopolitan, in its usual clueless and vulgar way, states why the term is offensive: “‘Ma'am’ is yet another horrible-sounding word that women are stuck with to describe various aspects of their body/life/hair: Vagina. Moist. Fallopian tubes. Yeast infection. Clitoris. Frizz,” snarks writer Jessi Klein, concluding: “‘Ma'am’ makes people crazy. Almost universally, women hate it (with the exception of a few people in the South who have decided that being called ma'am is a sign of respect or something).”
Um, sweetie, I’ve got news for you: It IS a term of respect, and not just in the South; and by no stretch of the imagination do women hate it “universally.” The military would never condone adopting vulgar terms for body parts when addressing women; they use “ma’am” because it’s polite. Deal with it, cupcake.
Those who take offense at the term “ma’am” are merely revealing their own insecurities, whether it has to do with age or gender or competence or whatever. Klein demonstrates this. “‘Ma’am’ isn't just a form of address,” she writes. “It's a way for a perfect stranger to let us know how old he thinks we are. What is the purpose of this? Why does a West Elm clerk have to let me know he thinks he knows how old I am? The issue isn't my comfort with my age (I'm 40) so much as why, why, why the [very bad expletive] does this need to be a factor in every interaction I have?”
Let’s get one thing straight: Whatever your personal feelings about the matter, whatever your issues or insecurities, whatever your lament about no longer being 19 years old and sexually desirable to strangers on the street … the term is still one of respect. To bite the head off anyone who uses it – whether a brigadier general or a 10-year-old boy – is petty. In other words, don’t take your personal hang-ups and rampant insecurities out on military personnel, children, or strangers who are attempting to be polite. It’s rude.
Folks, if you’ve ever wondered why our country is not the great nation it once was, it’s because of this. It’s the little things. It’s teachers who punish their students for addressing them respectfully. It’s clerks or customers who snarl when addressed politely. It’s military officers who must deal with sensitive senators. It’s women who yell at men for opening a door for them.
Men used to open doors for women, stand when they entered a room, held their chairs, and performed other marks of courtesy. Feminism has largely trashed these courtesies and examples of politeness.
Since women set the benchmarks for behavior in Western culture, it’s no wonder things are going downhill. Telling men not to hold doors for you or to stop addressing you with a polite term of respect simply indicates you no longer want respect from them. Be careful what you wish for.
Politeness is a social lubricant, folks. It’s what holds our society together. It’s what allows millions of different people to get along, despite their differences. Personally I feel honored when someone addresses me as “ma’am.” – but then I’m starting to get grey hair, so maybe I feel I’ve earned it.
“I don't actually advocate for a loss of all courtesy,” said New York Times columnist Natalie Angier in an interview with NPR. “[T]he question is where you put your courtesy.”
That’s nice, Ms. Angier – but how does a stranger know the degree of courtesy you find objectionable? How are they supposed to gauge this?
So for those who take offense at the term “ma’am,” I’ve come up with an alternate term, something anyone can universally use for those rude women who object to “ma’am,” a term I would LOVE to have seen Brigadier General Michael Walsh use on Barbara Boxer:
Try it. I’m sure they’ll love it.